10 February 2009

Identity crisis

[grapes]Describe the taste of a raspberry.

Asked to do this from memory, rather than by biting into the actual berry, your initial instinct will likely be to rely on a tautology – raspberry tastes like raspberry – rather than to start rattling off a litany of qualities that define “raspberry-ness.” In fact, given an audience that has also tasted a raspberry, this may be the most useful description one can propose.

Now, describe the taste of a peach. Again, invoking the “Reflexive Property of Peaches” is tempting. But now that there are two fruits under consideration, you might also be able to compare and contrast the two, which brings new vocabulary into play. You might, for example, point out the greater acidity and seed-and-squirt crunch of the raspberry, or the sweetness and smooth chew of the peach.

What you’re not likely to do is declare that “this peach tastes like a raspberry,” or vice-versa. Why not? Because it would be extraordinarily unlikely to think that, and even less likely to actually be true. The differences, even if one lacks the organoleptic vocabulary to iterate them, are both significant and obvious at first taste.

Or, consider two things a little closer to each other (genetically speaking): tuna and sole. While the gulf between the taste of these two fish may be shallower than in the previous example, there’s still very little chance of mistaking one for the other in their native, unadorned form. Why not? Because they don’t taste alike, nor are they texturally alike. There is, for lack of a more developed explanation a “tuna-ness” and a “sole-ness” that, once one has tasted them, draws clear lines of separation between the two. And in both cases, this knowledge is essential because informs how we use the ingredients. For example, aggressive preparations that work with tuna will obliterate sole, while delicate sauces perfect for sole might be overwhelmed by the intensity of tuna. Raspberries will bring a tartness to a dessert (which might, in some cases, necessitate adding sugar for balance) that peaches will not. Were we unaware of these differences, we would have no idea when to use which ingredient; we might be making a linzer torte with tuna jam, or dipping raspberries in little slurries of wasabi and soy. (And yes, I’m aware the latter is bad sushi etiquette.)

“All this is obvious,” you might be thinking to yourself. Quite so. But make the subject of analysis a wine grape, and for some this obviousness apparently goes right out the window. Describe the taste of pinot noir? How dare anyone suggest that pinot noir is like this, that, or the other thing…why, it’s varietal fascism of the highest order!

A straw man? Unfortunately not, as anyone who’s spent much time on online wine fora will know. Consider, for example, this recent thread on eRobertParker.com, wherein a debate over this point is joined by people on all sides of the issue. Even Parker himself sees fit to join the fray, though given his all-too-typical syntactical incoherence it’s hard to say exactly what position he’s taking; he seems to be against “typicity” as a general concept, but for the idea that grapes have identifiable characteristics. Here’s a verbatim excerpt; see if you can make sense of it:

I have never found anyone who can give an accurate definition of "typicity"....or anyone who can find much of it in a double blind tasting....if typicity is merely reciting the generally agreed upon 2-4 flavors/aromas that each varietal offers,I am impressed....usually I associate the use of "typicity" as a substitute for mediocrity

(Let’s get one bit of definitional precision out of the way. I’m not talking about “typicity” as it is used within, say, the French appellation system. That sort of typicity – a Sancerre must “taste like a Sancerre,” and so forth – is related, but fraught with complications, and a longer subject than I’m willing to tackle at the moment. The issue under consideration here is both broader (the very existence of typicity) and differently focused (how that concept applies to grapes).

So what is varietal character? In the context of wine, it’s the qualities of grapes that differentiate one from another, and that make that grape identifiable in isolation. It’s one of the three elements that create the character of a finished wine (the other two are terroir and winemaking). Components include various aromatics, of course, but also structural and developmental factors. For instance, some grapes have naturally long ripening curves, or inherently low acidity, or a persistent greenness from high concentrations of pyrazines, or a natural inconsistency in maturity within a bunch.

[grapes]This all seems basic enough, right? Yet it is denied by so many. Let’s start by examining the consequences of this stance.

If, for example, sangiovese does not have an identifying signature, then how can a raspberry? Lavender? They can’t. In the absence of an essential character to the wood used for barrels, what does it mean to invoke the aroma of oak in a wine? Nothing, because who can say what oak smells like? Much of the language of wine description is thus lost at a stroke. Consider, for example, this representative note from Robert Parker:

A blend of 82% Zinfandel and 18% Carignane, the similarly priced, full-bodied, inky ruby/purple-tinged 2004 Zinfandel Buchignani reveals superb raw materials along with abundant quantities of raspberry, blueberry, black cherry, and loamy soil notes as well as subtle oak in the background. Nicely layered with good acidity, and an opulent, powerful finish, and a low 14.4% alcohol, it can be enjoyed now and over the next 4-6 years.

Now let’s try that note again, but this time removing references to things that (according the anti-inherency crowd) cannot have identifiable characteristics:

A blend of 82% Zinfandel and 18% Carignane, the similarly priced, full-bodied, inky … 2004 Zinfandel Buchignani reveals superb raw materials along with abundant quantities of … as well as subtle … in the background. Nicely layered with good acidity, and an opulent, powerful finish, and a low 14.4% alcohol, it can be enjoyed now and over the next 4-6 years.

Not very descriptive, is it? No, it’s not useless, and some might prefer that the wine notation abandon its over-reliance on the produce aisle, but the language is fundamentally and unrecoverably stunted. Even “acidity” is problematic, because it is a discrete chemical (several, actually), with defined organoleptic characteristics, and those who believe that such definitions are impossible would certainly wish to be consistent. Tannin, not mentioned in this note, would be another victim as it, too, is a specific thing, though describing its effect (“bitter,” “smooth,” etc.) would remain acceptable. What about sugar, or alcohol? I’m not sure, but they might have to go as well.

So, as some would have it, one should no more be able to tell gewürztraminer from mourvèdre by taste and smell alone than be able to differentiate tuna from a raspberry. Does that make sense to anyone? Of course not, and I doubt most who take the position that there is no or little inherent varietal character would agree with that statement. Why, then, do they insist on its truth in other situations? If it’s true that there’s no gewürztraminer character, then indeed who’s to say that’s it’s not mourvèdre after all?

Something that one notices, almost right away, is that the deniers of varietal character tend to be mostly, though not exclusively, from the New World. Or, if not, from newish producers and regions of the Old, where viticultural traditions are not measured in centuries, or even millennia. Why might that be?

As with the never-ending terroir debate, there’s an element of resentment involved. Not jealousy, it’s important to note, but fatigue. A weariness and wariness over constantly having to defend their wines as “bad” or “wrong” not because they have their own assortment of individual flaws, but because they are not [insert paradigm-defining Old World wine region here]. And that’s certainly understandable. The Willamette Valley is not Burgundy, the Santa Ynez Valley is not the Piedmont, Mendoza is not Cahors, and so forth. If terroir is to mean anything, that must be acknowledged.

And sure, maybe there are some who would ask, “who is anyone to say what a raspberry tastes like?” But while I wish them well in their philosophically pure subjectivity, there’s not much point in engaging them in a debate on the subject, because they’re not likely to agree on any definitions upon which to base a discussion. As I suggested before, however, most objectors to the codification of varietal character probably don’t actually believe in definitional anarchy, despite their protests to the contrary. Instead, they’re defending their wines as a finished product, and by extension are drawn into a corollary debate about the grapes required to produce that product. Grapes that sometimes don’t taste much like their historical or traditional antecedents.

What does it mean, for example, to say that a pinot noir tastes like a syrah or a zinfandel; a charge leveled at many a New World pinot? We can restrict that charge to the finished wine, in which case there are all manner of winemaking techniques that can achieve, at least in part, those results. But in the main, winemakers utilizing such techniques aren’t the ones doing the complaining, they’re the industrial, mass-market-focused types that aren’t heard from much outside of annual stockholder reports. No, the winemakers raising objections tend to work pretty simply from grape to bottle, or buy from those who do. Yes, they utilize some of the “tricks” – one might more charitably call them “mitigations” – that are a part of every winemaker’s portfolio, but not often to an unduly deformative extent. Thus, the difference in their wines’ character comes not from strange voodoo in the cellar, but more often than not from the practices of the farmer, who uses knowledge both ancient and modern to achieve results that would be recognizable by the first people to ever grow wine grapes…even if they might not find the resulting wines particularly familiar.

To push a pinot into realms where people think it tastes like something it’s not (without mucking about in the cellar) requires one of two things: an individualistic terroir, or something historically atypical about the condition of the grapes at harvest. The terroir differentiator is easily tested by comparing the wine in question with other wines from the same terroir. Do any of them “taste like pinot” by the standards of the person leveling the charge? If yes, it’s not the terroir, it’s a farming choice. Which, one learns, it almost always is. And these days, the most common path towards difference (or what critics would call deformation) is the search for greater ripeness (or what critics would call overripeness). Not just of the aromatics, but of the grape’s various structural elements.

Is it reasonable to assert that, across wildly varying terroirs, a grape will show identifiable yet common characteristics? Within certain parameters, yes: a grape tasted at analytically similar stages in its evolution, and – this is important – bracketed within the range of what most people would call “ripe,” will indeed taste much the same from place to place. And so, lacking fundamentally deformative cellar practices, will the wine that results from it, though of course there will always be differences as well. But note that key caveat. A grape pushed past that bracketed stage, or not allowed to reach it, shares something in common with very old or botrytized wines in that it becomes very difficult to identify in contrast to its genetic cousins and distant relatives. Varietal similarity due to the less controversial form of this – underripeness – is amply demonstrated by supermarket wines in pretty much any country, where one €5 Jurançon will taste much like another $6 pinot blanc: green-tinged and vague fruit, and watery, perhaps with some sugar to “cover up” the winery’s general indifference to quality.

And as for the more controversial stage – elevated ripeness (see how even I’m afraid to use the loaded word “overripeness”? though the French sur maturité finesses the issue with the usual French élan) – here we see how New World producers and their Old World spiritual cousins can feel so put-upon. For indeed, their wines are often bigger, fruitier, and more alcoholic (at least at harvest; alcohols are easy to adjust downward) than the paradigmatic regions to which they are so frequently, and to their minds unfairly, compared. There are good and bad reasons for seeking escalating levels of maturity, but they’re beyond the scope of this particular post, so for now it’s enough to accept that such viticultural choices and their results exist, and then turn our attention back to the issue of varietal character.

One might legitimately wonder whether or not there’s an objective way to accuse a given grape of misrepresenting its established standards. As is almost always the case, the only true way to assess objectively is to restrict study to quantifiable criteria. The problem, of course, is that the mere attempt to assign those criteria brings us very quickly back into the realm of subjectivity. Who decides what the criteria are? We could, by fiat, decide that certain levels of X, Y, and Z (including aromatic and structural elements) define the characteristics of a given grape, and in fact we might have just about enough scientific understanding of grape chemistry to do this. But to what end? Deciding that gewürztraminer must possess X amount of whatever chemical is responsible for its signature lychee aroma is a great idea…right up to the point that one encounters a beautifully made gewürztraminer that smells nothing like lychee. If this is a result of terroir influence, as seems quite possible, then by elevating and enshrining one we negate the other: either varietal characteristics must trump terroir, or terroir must trump varietal characteristics. And that’s a subtraction from, rather than an addition to, our understanding of wine.

Outside of the lunatic fringe that insists all aspects of wine quality can somehow be assessed objectively, there’s no reason that this judgment can’t be, at heart and in practice, a subjective one. In other words, nothing more complicated than “it tastes like pinot noir to me”…the oenological equivalent of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography.

[grapes]But isn’t this subjective and restrictive definition a little unfair to our objecting winemakers? No, not at all. In fact, it’s the only sensible way to approach this issue. Here’s why.

Our understanding of the “essentialness” in things (raspberries, tuna, nebbiolo) is not useful because it gives us an opportunity to practice our tautological vocabulary, but because it allows us to make an informed decision about how we utilize those things. We choose olives rather than chocolate with our tuna because we have foundational expectations for what both will bring to the combination. We drink a yogurt-based beverage with lamb vindaloo because we know based on experience that a high-alcohol zinfandel that might otherwise go with lamb is going to taste like 151-proof rum when faced with that much heat. And we control the choices we make based on our experiential and theoretical understanding of the information available to us. Information that includes an internal and personal database of “essentialness.”

In other words, we make our own choices for our own reasons. And just as a chef’s opinion that tuna and chocolate are just spiffy together doesn’t matter unless that chef is participating in our dining experience, neither does a winemaker’s opinion that grenache is best when it tastes like riesling matter unless that winemaker is drinking with us. The chef and winemaker also make their own choices for their own reasons. But their choices and their reasons need have nothing to do with our choices and reasons as long as we have options. Which we do, in spades.

So it is not only enough to believe and thus say, “this pinot noir tastes like syrah,” it is the only way to say it, given that as with all assessments of wine, the implied subjective preamble (“for me…”) must be understood. Since that is all we have, it cannot be gainsaid merely because it is subjective. It cannot be disproved either, though it is susceptible to being shouted down by weight of anecdote. Especially when a winemaker, or the winemaker, is supplying a good portion of that weight.

This happens all too often, and it’s very unfortunate. The leap from “this pinot noir doesn’t taste like pinot noir” to “this pinot noir is [objectively] faulty because it doesn’t taste like pinot noir” is taking one’s rightful subjectivity into realms of claimed objectivity that it cannot possibly navigate. But “who are you to say?” (especially from a winemaker) makes a similarly dubious and perhaps even less useful claim that the very lack of objective truth is itself the objective truth. This is wrong. The absence of truth is just that…its absence. It cannot be repeated enough: other than a few bits of measurable data of only marginal interest to the consumer (rather than producer) of wine, all we have is subjectivity, unless we want to restrict wine appreciation and discussion to the laboratory.

So where does that leave us on the subject of varietal character?

Rejecting wines, or even entire categories of wine, based on personal conceptions of how grapes should and shouldn’t taste is not only justifiable, is eminently sensible, albeit more honorable if it’s done in response to experience rather than to reputation. Some may choose to eat and drink whatever they like whenever they like, without regard for the interaction between any of the elements. But I suspect those people are in the distinct minority; after all, most people don’t put ketchup on ice cream and could offer reasons why (e.g. “it sounds disgusting”). We as consumers regularly make choices, and those choices are best when based on a set of expectations. If we cannot rely on our expectations, then we cannot make informed choices. Since it is to our benefit to make informed choices, it is essential for the realization of that benefit that information be interpretable by our expectations. And, so, it is essential that a pinot noir taste like a pinot noir…by whatever individual standards we have set.